The Death and Return of the Author by Sean Burke

I’ve been looking for a reliably concise account of postmodernist thought on the author. I’m not sure this book, from 1992, meets the bill, given that it occasionally wanders in and out of obfuscation, but it’s very close. Burke takes the overly simple summation of the positions ofRoland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacque Derrida on authorship – “the author is dead” – and attacks it in two ways.

One, none of the three authors really held such a position as it is commonly understood (especially by us postmodern-challenged Yanks) – that texts do not have authors, as there is no meaning outside of socially and historically formed language. Thus, the romantic concept of the inspired and powerful author, in a postmodern age, should properly bed termed deceased.

Such a position falls apart very quickly under any kind of sustained critique. One cannot very well claim there is no author and then accept book royalties, garner a reputation, cite other authors, critique someone’s oeuvre (“faith in the oeuvre is faith in the author,” as Burke says), hold a position, etc, as this critics did. Their author-is-kaput stance is better understood non-literally, as a kind of rhetorical, aggressive poking, or interrogation, of Western conceits of the romantic author.

Two, Burke suggests that the trio’s work really poins to a view of the author as important but not all important; that the intentions and biography of the author are not something to be dismissed out of hand, as a New Critic might, but they are not all-powerful, either. It is a critical mistake to think of the author as completely powerful or completely absent. Very late in the book, Burke gives a nice summary of this. “… the denial of an absolute authorial centre implies not the necessary absence of the author, but the redistribution of authorial subjectivity within a textual mise en scene which it does not command entirely.”

I like this quote for several reasons – one, the allusion to French school of cinema and the accompanying naiveté of the whole auteur concept is a fine metaphor, and two, it encapsulates the entire book as a pretty good, if overly long, deconstruction of deconstructionists. The self may be socially constructed, sure, and after jumping into the alphabet soup of writing, intent may be lost, but none of these three writers are denying that it gets a shot or that it should be dismissed out of hand. They might have been trying to do so, but even if so, their approach fails, just as Derrida pulls Rousseau apart in On Grammatology. The nature of discourse confounds authorial intent, even if you’re a Continental critic. Derrida’s critique of Plato and Rousseau, and Barthes’s vigorous attack on a nonexistent mimetical tradition, have the smell of rather wet straw men due to the failure of their intent to frame the tradition they’re pushing against.

Once again, surprise, surprise, a moderate position makes the most sense. Burke notes that Mikhail Bakhtin’s sensible position well predates the trio’s meanderings, in that the author need not be a God-author to be an author; the concept needs to be re-examined to avoid univocal conceptions from time to time, but destruction is a little over the top. In this light, Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida’s bold claims served a primarily polemical purpose in keeping the debate alive.

Burke’s book had me tapping in terms into Google every five minutes (‘lapidary’ cadences was one, and quite a bit of Nietzsche-related material in the Foucault section that I was unfamiliar with) so it took me nearly three days to finish the book off.

Perhaps the best of these digressions was when I tapped in a search for ‘Rousseau masturbation’ which led me straight to “Of Derrida, Rousseau, and Wanking,” a good, short presentation of Derrida’s arguments in On Grammatology by a philosophy professor. Among other things, he does some interesting biblical exegesis and favors the Farrier-Goulder hypothesis. That reminds me; I have been remiss in adding new links to the navbar since I rebuilt the site. Perhaps after the exam, I will take the horde assembled in my Firefox bookmarks and sort out the highlights.

Aristotle’s Poetics

The Poetics is Aristotle’s discussion of the features of epic and tragedy, and it serves as a kind of intro to ancient literary criticism of a formal bent. The second book, on comedy, is lost, although if you’ve seen The Name of the Rose, you know Sean Connery gets to mangle a few lines from it before an evil monk eats the rest.

Of particular interest to me are the places of overlap with the Rhetoric. Aristotle speaks of metaphor and rhythm even more here than there, and there is also an stronger interest on composition. He is not just critiquing what makes a good or bad play, but he also seems bent on prescribing on what each genre may contain. An epic, for example, is presented as a somewhat more primitive and longer precursor to tragedy.

In order to understand poetry, Aristotle quite characteristically breaks it down into parts – genres, in other words – and then describes the forms of each genre. Like rhetoric, poetry (writing plays, more or less) is to be considered an art, because its core principle is mimesis – a blend of representation and imitation. Ebert should consider this definition when declaring films but not games are art. Successful tragedy aims for evoking catharsis, a sort of medical metaphor for emotional cleansing, in the audience.

The Loeb translator, Halliwell, believes calling Aristotle a formalist would be inaccurate; rather, Aristotle thinks that a discussion of forms is the same as a discussion of “the shaping and structuring of poetic meaning.” Sounds like a formalist to me – why else would anyone be interested in form criticism?

Perhaps what Halliwell was trying to say is that Aristotle views playwriting as rhetorical, and I think the text bears this out, though it has its confusing moments, such as in Poetics 19 when Aristotle gives rhetoric proper jurisdiction over “thought,” as plays are supposed to be indirect, rather than direct, argument. This got me thinking about whether or not rhetoric is but the expression of philosophy, but I’ll address that when I touch upon Derrida next.

Shaping Written Knowledge by Charles Bazerman

It’s not much of a stretch for me to think of scientific articles and books as being overtly rhetorical, but then again, I think on those terms. But it helps to have some organized close readings, as in Bazerman’s book, which is really a collection of themed articles, to demonstrate the point beyond question. I’m no longer thinking on a diss built around citation, but I’m still interested in the topic, so Bazerman is a necessary step for further understanding, as he is overtly concerned with citational practices.

High points include an analysis of Newton’s tightly controlled rhetoric in his Opticks and the transactions of the Royal Society, with the latter showing the rising power of recorded empiricism over mere sense experience, and the mixed roles played by the participants.

Bazerman is remarkably even-handed, as he does not come off as a positivist, nor is he entirely dismissive of it, as it is the standard position of much of the discourse that he is analyzing. He notes in Chapter 3, just before he analyzes the articles introducing the Compton Effect (which is a fascinating editorial story), that “empirical science is founded… to create symbolic accounts that will help us understand our daily concourse with the natural world of which we are a part.” It is, in the end, just another belief system, with its particular discourse community, much as the author of a pretty good article in the July College English that I read today, “Living Inside the Bible (Belt),” defines the evangelical worldview and that of her own, a professor of composition. Any objectivity is illusory; everything is argument; both faith and reason are continually present and working in tandem.

I really enjoyed the chapter on the reading habits of physicists, who seem to read very much like moi, with all sorts of personal biases, inconsistent scanning for key words, marking up of margins, and preferences toward certain rhetorical moves.

The philosophical tradition that the APA system slowly evolved out of is a rather sad tale; many empirical studies now feel completely soulless, for in their quest for objectivity and accuracy, their authors willingly strip away most of their humanity to meet APA. I constantly thank my lucky stars I’m in a field where the style standards are relatively loose and digressions are not anathema.

The next to last chapter is one of the better explanations of the intersection between rhetoric and lingusitics, and language and learning, that I’ve seen written. Go Chomsky, Go Vygotsky. I’d say more, but I’ve been reading for nearly 10 hours straight. Sleep approaches.

The Methodical Memory by Sharon Crowley

Yet another belated book review. I have one more to write tonight.

Crowley’s book is another key text of the early ’90s. It is not quite a history so much as an dual account of invention’s absence in 19th-century textbooks and a fierce attack on the epistomological and moral weaknesses of currrent-traditionalism. Crowley does not go into the political and social landscape as much as Miller or Connors might, but she has some very adroit close readings of Campbell, Bain, Whately, and the whole murderer’s row of prescriptive textbooks, which served for a long time as composition’s only theorietical basis.

She also has a tendency in this book to make incredible statements without citation (I wrote CITE? in the margins quite a bit) though she’s not Susan Sontag, thankfully, which would have required a stamp.

I would confidently place this book on my shelf – and I will, ironically enough, when I finish writing this entry – next to Neel’s Plato, Writing, and Derrida. They seem almost to be companion volumes, as his “anti-writing” is precisely what she is deconstructing the origins of – those audience-free, writer-free, passionless shells that every teacher has seen all too often.

Of particular interest for me was her take on Bain’s paragraph principles, which she links directly to his obsession with method. It’s too bad I hadn’t read this or Kitzhaber earlier.

It’s probably quite hard to write such a work without holding back a considerable amount of bile, and I think some of it escapes in the last two chapters, where C-T, having been analyzed more or less dispassionately earlier, is then nailed to the proverbial wall. 17 years later, there is still very little to disagree with.

Some remarks on plagiarism in the last chapter are particularly well put – C-T’s research paper is “an elaborate exercise in the art of borrowing knowledge without seeming to steal it… this assignment quite literally invites plagiarism.” I hadn’t thought of it as a honeypot before, but the analogy fits rather well.

Slightly grumpy

I had a reasonably productive day (it’s not over) with a few minor setbacks – a panel I’ve been trying to put together has lost its third member, and my metaphor paper was rejected. However, these are fixable problems; we should be able to find another warm body (an intellectual warm body, of course) for a third, and as for the paper, I was invited to resubmit, so what I wrote was not entirely dim, just in need of reframing and refocusing. Such a task will have to wait until after the exam, though.

I read the last Potter book and discussed it with H. Don’t keep reading if you haven’t read it yet and all that nonsense.

When I have a moment, I will update the Potter-Taran treatise to reflect the end of the series. I think some of Harry’s actions in the end mollify some of my earlier arguments in part, but on the whole – especially the class issue and the nature of magic – it still stands. I’m of a mind, though, to rewrite it as significantly less agonistic.

I called Snape and Lily over two years ago, but it was still interesting to see the backstory finally emerge. I would have prefered Snape to have lived and explained things to Harry himself, thus serving as a replacement for Dumbledore’s usual coda and completing a rather long redemptive journey, but Rowling had other ideas. Frankly, killing off him, Lupin, Tonks, and Fred was, well, overkill, as if she was behind on her bloodshed quota.

An easy way to preserve Snape is to allow him knowledge that Voldemort will need to kill him to acquire ownership of Dumbledore’s wand; resigned to his fate, he can leave his memories in Dumbledore’s office for the Horacrux-searching Harry to find (assuming that Snape would shy from admitting his past to Harry face-to-face). When Harry views them, he would then be extra motivated to offer himself to Voldemort, in order to save Snape. Then, with Harry ‘dead’, Voldemort will be in no special hurry to sacrifice Snape, everyone’s favorite sourpuss could play a role in the final operatic dustup, and Alan Rickman wouldn’t have to struggle through a really silly death scene in Movie #7.

Standing in the Shadow of Giants – Rebecca More Howard

And once again, my position on plagiarism shifts. All this marathon reading makes me feel like an overused glop of Silly Putty, boneless and marred by fingerprints. But it’s a good, exercised feeling, a kind of happy mental soreness.

This 1999 text by Howard is the most sensible and sustained work on student authorship that I’ve read yet. It brings together ideas from several older articles I’ve read into a cohesive whole, and ties together two ideas that I’ve held for awhile but never quite combined – looser standards on plagiarism and the importance of good summary writing. What follows is my position through hers – an indebted reflection of the text, you might say.

In a nutshell, a hard line on plagiarism is a mockery of what modern authorship really consists of. Rather than inspired, individual genius authors, we are more like focus points, spiders surrounded by a web of information that we have constructed and yet limits our movements. This isn’t Howard’s metaphor, it’s my WWW allusion. Flies (ideas) or other spiders (authors) enter, and are either consumed or held for storage. Free will is extremely limited in this instinctual spider model (yet another place where philosophy and rhetoric meet); learning to write, then, involves Howard’s patchwork and a bit of Nietzsche’s ‘rumination’; to learn how to build the web, we must regularly digest ideas, some completely, some halfway. Failure to completely digest – to patchwrite, to borrow – is not a crime, but part of the learning process. An ideal pedagogical strategy for addressing this authorial model is to concentrate on the summary.

So, eureka! I already have a model for focusing on the summary of paragraphs; I just need to expand it beyond a day or two – make it the focus of perhaps the first third of the semester, and linger on a few pieces until they can collaboratively understand the texts in the 1010 reader. Once they can digest the texts, ‘ruminate’ upon them (a great metaphor) then we can move on to the textual analysis. Yay! Maybe I can be a decent teacher now, It’s really nice to find some support for what I’d always assumed was an old-school, backward-thinking idea of mine.

I am also cheered to see that Howard does not think, as many do, that individual authorship was somehow invented in the 18th century. What a strange idea. Cicero‘s planet-sized ego would not allow anything less; Quintilian writes in a clear tradition of rhetorical authors; the Greeks constantly refer to each other, usually unfairly; Homer and the early poets are all individuals. It’s true enough that authorship started to change from the medieval Christian model with the printing press, and before that, Christianity dueled with and then replaced the classical models of authorship, but c’mon, guys.

Howard’s heavy citing (and of her students, a nice touch) has produced a huge wish list that I will take to the library this afternoon. She is yet another author that passes over authorship/citation in the early Christian period (a slot that the dissertation will slide right into) – more puzzling, though, is her disengagement at the very end of the book with online authorship. I don’t buy her unsupported assertion that offline authorship is the same as online authorship, or that widespread digitization is not driving changes in copyright/authorship; considering how progressive the rest of her work is, this statement of hers feels short-sighted, even willfully blind. Ong is not in her bibliography – that might be why – then again, 1999 was pre-DMCA, before online piracy really went mainstream (Napster hit its peak around ’00, I think) and a hell of a lot has happened since.

Her numerous online bibliographies (which I am always stumbling onto) are a great example of the spider-web metaphor I mentioned earlier – Mark Goodacre’s NT Gateway is another, Dennis Jerz also springs to mind – authors that serve as savvy clearinghouses and facilitators of synthesis. They all play the dominant discourse game, of course, but they’re also making tacit the swirling eddies of knowledge buzzing around them. Wow, I actually worked flies into that.

Authorship in Composition Studies – Howard, Carrick, etc

The summaries are flying fast and thick now; I’m on a roll.

This little book is a series of short essays on various aspects of, duh, authorship in composition studies. It apparently sprang from a 2001 doctoral-level class taught by Rebecca More Howard, with seven grad students and a few professors collaborating. It seems to have been a reasonably long process, as the publication date is 2006.

The first six chapters are pretty good. Howard’s first chapter is by far the highlight. She’s probably the most prominent scholar in this area and it shows; her approach to plagiarism is extremely progressive. And Paul Butler’s (who seems to be the same Butler that now writes on style) Chapter 2 stroll through copyright law is a nice addenum to A. Lindey’s older book, though Butler doesn’t address the DMCA.

Chapter 3 delves into body studies, which has always baffled me (I understand a Kantian emphasis on physiology, but not this) – one day I’ll figure it out, but not right now. Chapter 4 is a nice exploration of cheap shots at students-as-authors; ditto Chapter 5’s take on textbooks’ views of student authorship. Chapter 6 suggests authorship problems with the standard hands-off approach of tutoring.

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 are the weakest of the bunch, though for different reasons. 7 explores, shallowly, the effects of technology on authorship without mention of Ong or much history – but seeing this is a close interest of mine, I’m probably being harsh. 8 and 9 fall into a common trap concerning feminist and multiculturalist takes on comp studies; they’re borderline unreadable, especially 9, which commits an unacceptable drive-by interpretation of MLK’s dissertation, a complex subject that requires more than Keith Miller’s take to digest properly. 8 overreaches a few times, too, especially when discussing the DoI. The theme of those chapters is agreeable, but the delivery is heavy-handed. Feminist critiques (if I use Rebecca West’s classic informal definition, then cultural studies fall under feminism; then again, as Michael Crotty explains quite well, feminism is far from an united front) are the power batters of close reading, the equal of hitting a text with a maul; they really need a light hand.

Chapter 10 is the closer by Carrick; it manages to rescue Chapters 7-9 with a more reasonable delivery of their message, and it contains several nice pedagogical strategies themed around authorship. I was unaware that Howard’s Standing In the Shadows of Giants stresses summaries; it’s on my shelf, waiting to be read, but now it’s much, MUCH closer on the queue, because, as I’ve probably mentioned before, an emphasis on summary-writing is a key concept of my pedagogy.

Teaching About Writing… Downs and Wardle

Another excellent article in the June 2007 CCC is Downs and Wardle’s “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (re)Envisioning “First-Year Composition” as “Introduction to Writing Studies.”

Downs and Wardle suggest, as in their long title, to revamp FYC into something called “Intro to Writing Studies,” just as other disciplines have “Intro to Psych,” or “Intro to Engineering.” And this new course would have specific content – research in writing, the benchmark articles that graduate students read in TA training courses – and the students would learn writing by researching writing itself. This would lead, naturally, to an undergraduate major in Writing Studies instead of the usual English.

There are problems with this approach – the difficulty of the material and the sharpened bell curve it would likely create, though I like the way it nicely exposes how many teachers semi-existing in the dark underbelly of composition would not be qualified to teach it (though a solid year of graduate work in the area would be enough, I’d think, for starters). And it would require a major administrative reimagining of the FYC mission that much of composition depends on for its existence and funding, and it is a lucky school or English department that could manage such a trick.

But it does seem that this approach, whether called “Intro to Writing Studies” or “Intro to Rhetorical Writing,” etc, is a logical outgrowth of the post-process movement. I’d certainly be open to it. It would need a very specialized reader that currently doesn’t exist (though Downs and Wardle seem to be writing one), and the authors suggest that individual programs would have to make their own for some time, but that’s a minor hurdle.

It actually sounds like a great deal of fun, and anything that helps to grow rhetcomp out of its service niche, I think, is positive. A gentle way to introduce it would be to start a few sections side-by-side with existing FYC courses, as a pilot. Hmm. 1020 here is probably loosely defined enough to accomodate such an approach already, though 1010 isn’t.

The Erasure of Language by Susan MacDonald

David Mulroy’s 2003 The War Against Grammar has been cited extensively in a major composition journal. Oh well – it’s not like I don’t have a thousand other worthwhile things to do. It’s more important that someone did it.

That said, “The Erasure of Language,” a June 2007 article in CCC by MacDonald is very, very good, and not just because she cited Mulroy’s book on 605-606 and 610. Along with a few other articles I’ve seen in the last few years, it points to a needed revival in the study of style. (She cites many – Fulkerson, Haswell, Connors, Williams, although mine in CE and Butler’s recent “Style in the Diaspora” in RR comes to mind immediately – Butler claims style hasn’t completely disappeared, but has been pureed, rather, via a series of academic Cuisinarts.)

Now I’m not sure this revival means that we all must become part-time linguists, as much of her article hints, although I have greatly enjoyed the linguistics and grammar courses I’ve taken. I even enjoyed English in grade school (although my grades were lower than I typically remember) – in the mid 1980’s, when I was a lad, I remember extensive drilling in sentence combining and Reed-Kellogg diagramming, and I don’t resent it.

But I agree with her that the decline of style is very closely tied to composition’s morbid fear of grammar instruction, which is based on a half-ton of empirical studies, none of which are longitudinal enough to justify kicking the parts of speech out the door. For more on that, read Mulroy. He’s a classicist with a historical bone to pick, but he does know how to evaluate empirical research.

It’s hard to discuss style at all without extensive terminology, and almost all the terminology comes from grammar. If you don’t know what a clause is, introducing parallelism is much more difficult. Too many of my students come into my classes without this basic knowledge, and the discipline fears providing it, as it has little discernable short-term value – even though everyone damn well knows that learning to write well takes many years of study. We have to think long-term, knowing we are but a stepping-stone on a long path. That may be the key fallacy of FYC – that most students can improve their skills significantly in a year with only two fifteen-week courses that rarely offer enough one-on-one mentoring.

Her emphasis on the lack of “language” and “style” in CCC sessions was also interesting. I remember having difficulty finding sessions I wanted to watch when I went in 2006 for a very similiar reason, because I was also looking for such material, the ‘what’ of teaching composition rather than the ‘how,’ ‘why,’ or ‘who’. It was there, just scattered to and fro. I plan to go in ’08 whether or not my proposal is taken, as it’s physically close again, in New Orleans; I’m anxious to see what everyone is talking about. Maybe there will be a panel or two with this style-revival theme.

Skimming through Mulroy’s book again, there’s still an opening for me in the future to talk about what he calls “higher illiteracy” – the inability to paraphrase, in a reasonable fashion, even single sentences, which he demonstrates using the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence.

Quintilian, III-V

Book III begins with a history of developments in rhetoric up to Q’s time, divided between the Greeks and the Romans. It’s clear that Q had access to a lot more early treatises that we have, though, as I have noted earlier, it does not seem that he had the Rhetoric Ad Herrenium. Most tantalizing are a few unknown rhetorical works by Aristotle, the work of his student, Theopastrus, and the Cornelius that Q cites nearly as often as Cicero.

The rest of III details some of the broad terminology of rhetoric – the five canons and their proper order, the purposes of rhetoric – “to instruct, to move, to delight,” the three audiences – epideictic, deliberative, and judicial, with some nice audience analysis after each, and some mention of various assignments that practice each – the theses and prosopoeia in particular. But Q dismisses it all with a wonderful flourish in 3.11 – “But let us leave this pedantic terminological subtlety to its pretentious labours!” as a breather before beginning the long march through the nitty-gritty of the parts of a speech.

Book IV handles the prooenium (introduction) and narration in all three kinds of situations. As usual, Q spends the most time in forsenic, with a great concern for audience response, a willingness to advise the use of tropes, and fifty hojillion examples from Cicero’s speeches. As promised, the advice is now practical rather than theoretical. A running theme is that when art is detected, it is lost; in 4.2, he states, “Everything must seem to come from the cause, not from the orator. Yet we find this intolerable, and we think our art is wasted unless it can be seen, when the truth it that it ceases to be art once it is detected!” The introduction and narration must not seem rhetorical in the slightest, but they must also seem well prepared, otherwise the listeners, in particular the judge, will be insulted.

Book V concerns proofs, the third part of a speech. Following Aristotle, Q divides them between non-technical proofs (external evidence, testimony, etc) and technical proofs (the enthymeme, signs, and examples). The technical section also gives a long list of commonplaces, which, as Q states, are not loci – prewritten snippets to be inserted into speeches – but the particular places from which arguments are be drawn. He divides these between humans and things. Places to draw arguments from with humans are thing like sex, occupation, fortune, physique, temperament, past crimes, etc. Places to draw arguments from with things involve journalistic questions – how, when, where, what, etc. Q’s prominent treatment of commonplaces confirms a strong recognition that invention is essential to rhetoric (even though earlier the book he states he will not list commonplaces but give a general method and principles).

This book is also where Q’s preference for a “masculine rhetoric” comes forth – weak arguments are apparently the same as emasculated eunuchs. Progressive on gender he ain’t.

V ends with refutations of proofs – how to counter various kinds of enthymemes (Q is aware this term is poorly defined) and epicheiremes (a long set of chained enthymemes, apparently, which he defines very differently from the RAH), and also with a cautionary note. Q observes that a speech “stuffed” with logical arguments will rarely be persuasive, and that “plain” language is not necessarily superior to the use of tropes (which he hasn’t gotten to yet). This is what I like about Quintilian the most – he never just presents material, but he also lists objections to it. His running objection is something like this line from 5.10 – “The discovery of arguments did not wait for the publication of textbooks.” In other words, knowing the different classifications of examples pales beside the ability to effectively use them in a speech.

I’ve been thinking along these lines as well, in the sense that if I teach 3604 again, I might teach many of the obscure tropes, but not by name. That is, I’d teach them by function. If the students want to learn the names, I’ll give them, but it is more important that they have a conscious option than knowing what that conscious option was called by someone 2000 years ago. I’d like to describe a set of tropes, in plain English and then have them execute all of them in a short piece, then discuss the effects and merits of each. What they should be able to do is not to correctly identify a trope, but recognize that they are looking at a trope when they see one, and know they are witnessing a rhetorical maneuver that they can resist, appreciate, or imitate.